It’s Not All Bad News: Four Monumental Advancements in Tech in 2021

Have the past few years of tech news gotten you down? Here are four recent advancements in tech you may have missed.

[cover image by Nicolas Bouvier]

Theranos has fallen apart, and with it, a lofty dream of “never having to say goodbye too soon.” Its founder is now looking at prison. Remote schooling is now seen as largely a bust. Instagram and Facebook are causing depression in teens. Purveyors of junk “science” and misinformation have let us down through a global pandemic, and tech has in some ways amplified the ability to misinform. Social media and cybercrime risk undermining the very foundations of government. Questions linger about the wisdom and safety of leading-edge gain of function research, as well as its potential, accidental role in the greatest world health crisis in our lifetime.

Is the tech news starting to get you down? Here are four reasons for hope.

1. Renewables have made staggering gains over the past decade, and usage is accelerating

Amidst all the climate doom, we need to recognize that we are, in fact, dramatically changing our ways. According to the New York Times, renewable energy sources now account for nearly 21 percent of the electricity the United States uses, up from about 10% in 2010. Notably, this trend has continued to run its course through both Democrat and Republican administrations. That’s astonishing progress in just a decade.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) tracks the energy consumption by source. As you can see, the areas of greatest growth are all renewables, and America’s reliance upon coal has plummeted over the past decade:

Source: U.S. renewable energy consumption surpasses coal for the first time in over 130 years – Today in Energy – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Solar power in particular is poised for near-exponential growth. And even though manufacturing and supply chain disruptions have held this growth back, we still added nearly 290 Gigawatts of capacity during 2021. A single gigawatt is enough to power either 700,000 homes, or about ten million light bulbs. The EIA expects solar to account for nearly half of all new US electricity-generating capacity in 2022. The IEA notes an acceleration of almost 60% in electricity-generation compared to the average rate of renewables over the past five years. That’s great news.

Read more: Oil Companies Are Collapsing Due to Coronavirus, but Wind and Solar Energy Keep Growing – The New York Times (

2. Up in the Sky! The James Webb Telescope Is Set to Reveal the Heavens

On Christmas Day 2021, NASA blasted $10 billion worth of the largest and most complex observatory ever built into space.

The James Webb Telescope is a large, infrared-based instrument, more than 100 times as powerful as the Hubbel Telescope. It will allow scientists to peer deep into the history of our universe like never before. Scientists hope it will resolve many unknowns related to our historical record of our universe, in particular, what happened in the first 400 million years after the Big Bang. There’s also the tantalizing possibility it might help identify some of the distant worlds in which alien life is feasible.

What’s more, it’s a much-needed sign of multinational cooperation. We should applaud the international partnership that made it possible; it’s a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency.

Webb has unfolded and will now travel 1 million miles, then calibrate its instruments. At this writing, all systems look nominal. By late March, researchers hope it will be capable of sending back its first images.

Webb’s largest feature is a tennis-court sized, ultralight sun-shield, which manages to reduce heat from the Sun more than a million-fold, while also blocking enough light for Webb’s observational instruments to peer deep into dark space. But there are many other innovations that make this possible. Watch this video and be awestruck by the ingenuity of humankind:

3. SpaceX’s Starlink Has Gone Live, a Dramatic Leap for Rural Connectivity

Speaking of space, but sticking much closer to terrestrial needs, there is now a network of low-orbit satellites that’s capable of delivering broadband Internet connectivity to pretty much anyone, anywhere on the planet.

“So what?”, you say. After all, there have been past vendors of satellite connectivity. And if you’re a city or suburban dweller, you probably have had cable or fiber optic access for quite some time. First, try to remember the days of dialup. There are still huge swaths of the country and of course the world that don’t have broadband.

This is a map of America’s broadband problem – The Verge

Yes, DISH network and others exist. But the difference here is that Starlink’s satellite network is sixty times closer to earth, which means this network provides a very fast, low-latency connection, fast enough to allow video and audio streaming. That is, you can make phone calls, do Zoom calls and host live video, where it was never possible before. For millions around the world, and for more of the planet than that which is currently reachable via broadband, it’ll be like upgrading from dialup speeds to broadband.

The opportunities for advancement in rural connectivity, forestry/desert/tundra research and data relay, and even for live feeds for underwater oceanographic communication and more — have advanced many-fold. There will soon be no place on the planet it’s not possible to get broadband connectivity, and that’s critical for a lot of researchers, first responders, farmers, healthcare facilities and remote communities.

Starlink’s goal is to sell high-speed internet connections to anyone on the planet. After years of development and $885 million in venture funding from the FCC in 2020, Starlink now has a fleet of nearly 2,000 satellites overhead.

There is a downside, however. Starlink’s large network of low-earth orbit satellites have the chance of being more visible from earth. As such, Starlink has also earned justified criticism and concern from environmentalists and astronomers.

SpaceX is aware of this and has piloted many mitigation steps to make them near-invisible, such as sun shades, which fold down to block light bounce-back, and orientation of the main “fin” of the satellite directly toward the sun. They claim their pilot tests are quite successful at mitigating this problem, and that their satellites are near-invisible to the naked eye. I file this in a “wait and see,” but think broadband-possible-everywhere is a major achievement with tremendous leverage for good.

4. Artificial Intelligence Cracks A Nagging, Vital Molecular Question: AlphaFold

It has been hailed as “the most important achievement in Artificial Intelligence ever.” No, they’re not talking about the terrific Netflix recommendations you’re getting during this pandemic. They’re giving this lofty praise to AlphaFold 2, a highly accurate model for protein folding. It’s not only the most important achievement in AI ever, its also the most important computational biology achievement ever.

Proteins are essential in just about all the important functions in our body: they help us digest our food, build our muscle, encode our genetic signals and more. Viruses are a small collection of genetic code (either DNA or RNA), surrounded by a protein coat.

In short, proteins are at the core of our biology. And we can influence proteins with nutritional intake, exercise, pharmaceuticals, enzymes and more. But a key question: how do proteins physically take shape at the molecular level, and how are they most likely to interact with biological entities like enzymes or pharmaceuticals, or other proteins? If we had a computer model that could predict how proteins might take shape, or fold, in such interactions, it could revolutionize the process for developing new therapeutics and diagnosing maladies.

The number of protein types is much larger than you may think. Depending upon cell type, there are between 20,000 and 100,000 different protein types in each human cell.

For nearly 50 years, advances in medicine and pharmaceutical research have been hampered by a key question: “How do proteins fold up?” In 2007, one scientist described this question as “one of the most important yet unsolved issues of modern science.”

Sure, we have computers. And from about 1970 through 2010, we’ve tried a “bottoms-up” modeling and brute-force approach. But understanding how proteins fold and unfold is fantastically difficult, because there are so many possibilities. Researchers have estimated that many proteins have on the order of 10^300 of possible options which would satisfy the constraints. “To frame that figure more vividly, it would take longer than the age of the universe for a protein to fold into every configuration available to it, even if it attempted millions of configurations per second,” writes Rob Toews in Forbes.

Scientists have observed for some time that the way proteins fold is not random, but couldn’t decipher any sensible pattern or model accurately. And for decades, researchers aimed with computers have attempted to model the underlying physics of proteins and amino acids to try to build some kind of predictive model. But the truth is, that after decades of such work, it fell short in its reliability.

And then, along came machine learning, and in particular, deep learning. Machine learning is a computational technique where, rather than trying to hand-write the procedural rules in a sort of “if this then that” bottoms-up way, you instead take well-scrubbed, well-marked data sets of inputs and labeled outputs, and use mathematical techniques to “train” a computer to decipher — or learn — underlying patterns. It’s rather like teaching a dog new tricks: repeatedly give them input (“sit”) and (when they do) also give them an output (“cookie”), and over and over again, and the dog learns to associate an input with an output.

Deep learning takes this training process one step further, and breaks down the simple “input-to-output” steps into many layers. This is akin to the way there are multiple layers of neurons in the brain taking raw input (e.g., aural neurons feeling varying wave pressure, other groups of neurons summing that up into phonetic chunks, other groups associating with getting a cookie or not), ultimately collectively leading to “learning.”

The training data for AlphaFold and AlphaFold2 came mainly from the Worldwide Protein Data Bank, which stores a massive archive of all known protein structures. The work derives from the AlphaGo project, funded by Google.

There’s a competition — the Critical Assessment of Protein Structure Prediction (CASP), held every other year. Here’s Forbes’ Toews:

AlphaFold’s performance at last year’s CASP was historic, far eclipsing any other method to solve the protein folding problem that humans have ever attempted. On average, DeepMind’s AI system successfully predicted proteins’ three-dimensional shapes to within the width of about one atom. The CASP organizers themselves declared that the protein folding problem had been solved.

Having a computational model for how proteins fold is sure to help much more rapid advancement in understanding how our biology works. Perhaps fewer tests on animals will be necessary, understanding of viruses will be more accurate, and effective therapeutics more rapidly discovered. It’s an incredibly leveraged discovery for humankind.

Take some time out of your day and watch this terrific overview video about AlphaFold 1.0. Then, note that the advancements even since then have been significant, so much so that the competition hosts now call the problem “solved”:

Read more:

The Filter Bubble, Lenses and Belonging

Being willing to update one’s prior assumptions in the face of new evidence is the essence of learning. If you haven’t changed your mind on something important in the past five years, check your filter bubble.

My friend and long-time Pacific Northwest journalist Joel Connelly penned a thought-provoking piece this morning, “Distress: I’m Watching Friends Fall for Inexplicable Conspiracy Theories.” In it, he reflects upon the regrettable turn that several of his friends have taken, embracing right-wing conspiracy theories. I agree with very much of his piece, but it gave me a moment to reflect upon Blue Shibboleths and Red Shibboleths, and offered some response in the comments. Those thoughts are expanded upon below.

With rare exception, members of Team Red don’t want to confront Red Shibboleths (stolen election, QAnon, anti-vaxxers, that January 6th was somehow benign, etc.) The excommunication costs are very high. Just witness Ted Cruz’s pathetic groveling on FOX a few nights ago. Or tune into Glenn Youngkin’s and Ron De Santis’ nuanced dance with Trump, doing everything to stay close to his base, but never directly calling him out on his many lies and bullying attempts.

So, mostly, we agree. But the beef I sometimes have with pieces like Joel’s are that members of Team Blue, long-ago convinced that They Are Science Itself, too often don’t even want to acknowledge that there are any Blue Shibboleths at all. Usually, the formula involves invoking “QAnon” to show their comparative adherence to the truth.

But eventually, the whiplash arrives. The camera zooms out. We get to see the unedited video, and we realize that the initial portrayals weren’t quite as we were told. Or in other contexts, thousands of natural experiments are run in the real world, and cloth masks, which for months we elevated into a tribal signifier of our very righteousness and compassion, don’t seem to stop or even slow the spread of an aerosol-borne virus. Or multiple large-scale studies (1, 2) start to trickle in which show that vaccination does not in fact durably reduce transmission, entirely undermining the ethical justification for vaccination mandates, vaccine passports and forced-masking of extremely low-risk young adults.

[N.B., I support vaccination, and am fully vaccinated and boosted myself, as is my family of five. It’s a step we can take that very clearly seems to lessen the risk of severe outcomes. But I do not support that they be mandated. I support informed choice.]

The question is, what do we do in the face of new evidence? Do we double-down and seek the comfort of our tribe, or are we willing to update our priors, and change our minds? And what is preventing us from this change-of-mind? It’s not solely mental inertia. It’s desire, too. Desire to belong, yes, but also avoidance of the pain which is sure to follow if someone dares to confront the momentum and belonging of one’s own tribe.

Belonging is an essential human need. That’s why solitary confinement is among the cruelest punishment.

We in America have destroyed many of the cultural institutions of belonging, from churches to scouting to national pride to even, at times, the family itself. Opportunities for belonging have changed. Today, the greatest sense of belonging comes from cultural affiliation and political tribes, which are increasingly one and the same. Virtue-signaling is a way to say “See, I’m one of you. I belong with you, and you belong with me.” But for far too many of these churches of belonging — you’ve got to buy into the whole enchilada or none at all. Technology has been all too happy to oblige. It’s never been easier or more effortless to wall oneself into an information silo, where no contravening fact may penetrate, and you’re engulfed by information affirming both your correctness and your righteousness.

So, I’m independent, and have been all my life. It’s lonely, but one great luxury of never donning the red or blue jersey in the first place is that we can look at the -evidence- for and against something, and update our priors based on new evidence. In fact, updating our prior assumptions in the face of new evidence is, I’d argue, the very essence of learning. We feel no compunction to buy into the entire panoply of ideas. It’s liberating. It allows me to support both responsible gun control legislation and more clearly assess actuarial risk to, say, K-12’s to advocate for paths of their least harm, even in a pandemic. It allows me to initially support masking and even remote schooling in March 2020, but then look at the data from areas which did not do these interventions along about June 2020, and admit that I was wrong, and come to the conclusion that this was not the path of least harm, and that we should update our approach.

Many popular Red Shibboleths and Blue Shibboleths really need to be put to the “does it stand up to the preponderance of the evidence?” test. For me, the evidence from November 3rd, 2020 onward pretty thoroughly confirms that Joe Biden is our duly elected 46th president:

Despite dozens of legal efforts, there’s still no credible evidence whatsoever that the election was “stolen” in any way. And evidence debunks essentially all the whacky, corny, absurd shibboleths at the heart of QAnon.

But facts are stubborn things, and they don’t favor team red or team blue.

The preponderance of the evidence suggests that the Steele “Dossier” was a political hit job, initially undertaken by a Republican Trump opponent but then expanded upon by the Clinton campaign. And then, somehow, this completely unsubstantiated document found its way into the highest levels of the FBI and consumed much of the blue press — and therefore us — for three full years, until Robert Mueller was finally able to say there was nothing really there, there. No collusion.

The preponderance of the evidence also strongly suggests that the greatest pandemic in our lifetime may very well NOT have sprung spontaneously from wildlife, but perhaps accidentally from a lab in Wuhan. Twenty-plus year NYT Science writer Don McNeil’s piece is well worth a read, if it’s escaped your own filter bubble: “How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Lab-Leak Theory.” I don’t know how anyone can read that piece, or many others on this subject (or the book “Viral,” by Matt Ridley and Alina Chen), and not come to the conclusion about where the preponderance of the evidence. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt? No, not yet. Preponderance.

Accidents happen, even hugely consequential ones. Just as it was important to know precisely how Chernobyl happened, it is vital to know how the worst crisis in world health came to be. And in that process, we have to ask the questions that we still haven’t yet gotten good answers to, such as, how, precisely, did US gain of function research techniques from UNC and elsewhere find its way to Wuhan, despite an explicit moratorium against it? After following the evidence pretty closely, it’s not clear to me that Dr. Fauci deserves his fiercely-defended hagiographic status, because he’s been very unwilling to open the books on just how this happened. And he’s not been forthright about it in Congress.

There’s also very substantial evidence (also here and here) that Fauci worked with Collins at NIH to shut down reasonable scientific debate about a different mitigation strategy than the one he favored. Is that what a scientific researcher should do, or should he rather invite reasonable scientific debate in the open? In particular, if you think Fauci has been nothing but a saintly actor, read this piece from one of Fauci’s targets, Stanford MD/PhD Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration.

I think the “focused protection” model Bhattacharya advocated shouldn’t have been tarred and shut down from public discourse. In fact, in hindsight, a pretty strong case can be mustered that it was, in fact, the path of least overall harm.

So no, I’m not sure those who criticize Fauci deserve to be tossed in with the crazies — that’s just not what the evidence currently suggests.

Musk v. Holmes: “Fake It Till You Make It” Only Sometimes Works

The conviction of Elizabeth Holmes should cause any founder to take stock of their claims: hopes, exaggeration, or fraud?

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. And then, a jury convicts you on four counts of defrauding investors.”

probably overheard in Palo Alto cafe today

We’re only four days into 2022, and already the denizens of Silicon Valley have received a powerful message about the risks and rewards of making wildly exaggerated product claims. I’m referring of course to Tesla’s blowout report of near doubling (87% increase) in electric vehicle deliveries for 2021, which vastly surpassed analyst estimates. The resultant one-day pop in net worth of more than $31 billion was not a bad outcome for Time Magazine’s newest Person of the Year, Elon Musk.

Oh, you mean that other story?

Well, yes. On the day prior, Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty on three counts of committing wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The Stanford dropout turned multi-billion-dollar entrepreneur turned felon is starting off 2022 on a very different note.

Former tech CEO Elizabeth Holmes guilty of fraud and conspiracy - Portland  Press Herald
photo from Portland Press Herald: Elizabeth Holmes leaves federal court

Now, we don’t know exactly where Holmes’ jurors drew the line on when ambition and audacity turned to fraud. Was it when she knowingly slapped the logos of Pfizer and Glaxo-Smithkline on product endorsement statements without their authorization? Was it when she repeatedly misstated or implied that Theranos devices were already in use by the military in operational capacity, even flying in Medivacs? Or was it when she neglected to mention that the vast majority of the patient bloodwork tests were processed on modified third-party machines, not Theranos-built machines? We don’t know.

But we do know that twelve jurors who heard the evidence unanimously found that what Holmes did constituted fraud. Specifically, they agreed it was three counts of wire fraud (that is, financial fraud using electronic means) and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Lance Wade, one of Holmes’ attorneys, argued: “Failure is not a crime. Trying your hardest and coming up short is not a crime.” He’s right. Fraud is not merely overpromising. It requires intentional misrepresentation.

Like most tech entrepreneurs, Elon Musk knows about overpromising. Expressing hopes about the future, or even making very bold claims of what is to come — these are not just allowed, but expected of a good CEO.

But making false, consequential claims about the present or the past, even if one doesn’t personally profit from it, can land you in jail. Musk is no stranger to bold statements. Let’s look at one specific claim.

In May of 2019, he promised that Tesla would have “a million robotaxis on the road by 2020.”

There’s a pretty good argument he must have known a million robo-taxis were not likely to be on the road by the end of 2020. After all, this wasn’t a long-range prediction: he made this claim as late as May 2019, a mere 18 months before the marker he set would have to come due.

Musk is still 1,000,000 robotaxis short of this vision.

Machine learning (and in particular “deep learning”) advanced quite rapidly from 2015 through 2020, so his bold claims about full-self-driving were made during a period of disruptive advancements. (So too were some of Holmes’ claims: miniaturization and healthcare tech also experienced some leaps of advancement during the first couple decades of this millennium.)

Musk’s repeated claims and teases of “full self driving by 2020” were untenable to most machine-learning researchers (including this occasional ML tinkerer), with so many edge cases and conditions, let alone the practicalities of getting past governmental review and building a million cars.

At the same time, we allow — even encourage and applaud — these kinds of claims and bold promises. Chances are, you agree with me that this big-thinking is admirable, desirable and even refreshing, when so much of our society seems to be focused on what we cannot or should not do. If you’ve ever lined up at an Apple store for the latest release, you’re also someone who is drawn to the promise of technology and are willing to overlook some of the realities of it.

Full self-driving is achievable in our lifetime, but he was clearly incorrect about the date and scale. Was Musk’s “million robotaxis by 2020” claim — one of many bold claims he’s made — fraudulent? It certainly was short-term beneficial to the company. Arguably, this helped with the Tesla “hype cycle” that boosted the stock price, attracted employees, added to investor and buyer confidence in the nascent electric vehicle sector, which all returned great value to Tesla. (Disclosure: I’m a stockholder and happy vehicle owner, having purchased my first EV in 2015.)

But no, to me, this is not a fraudulent claim, because it was reasonable to believe that revolutionary advancements in learning and training AI models might just enable it, and he wasn’t making a claim that it was available today, nor was he lying intentionally about it. Sure, the probability of it coming to fruition in the timeframe he promised was extremely slim (far less than 1%), but it was possible to imagine. 2017, 2018 and 2019 all had major leaps in machine learning algorithms and techniques — like Generative Adversarial Networks.

At the time of Musk’s 2019 claims, Tesla’s full-self-driving models were delivering pretty promising rates of improvement with every iteration. But full self driving hasn’t happened. Not yet. And stating even known-to-be-impossible goals about the future, by itself, isn’t fraud.

If you asked most people in 2015 — even scientists in the field — whether we were more likely to witness (a) full-self driving robotaxis on America’s highways or (b) cheaper-than-NASA, reusable orbital rockets landing like vertically with precision accuracy, most informed scientists and reasonable people would have opted for (a). And yet, the Michael Bay film became real:

Setting ambitious goals is not only legal, it’s essential for visionary leadership. Setting a “Big, Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) was in fact one of the key markers of enduring companies, as Jim Collins chronicled in his business bestseller Built to Last. All across Big Tech, you’ll find people putting BHAG’s on Powerpoint decks and chatting them up at conferences and strategy offsites.

In my view, the jury was correct to hand down Holmes’ verdict, which will almost certainly be appealed. But it should cause those of us in tech to ponder, again, the sometimes-ambiguous zones between acceptable hype (defined by the FTC as “product puffery“) and outright fraud.

Holmes and Theranos’ biggest failure of duty was to the many patients who were relying upon accurate test results to direct their plans of care. Yes, investors lost money — nearly $1 billion of it. But product errors and known shortcomings, knowingly covered up, could have killed people, and even as it is, might have shortened some patients’ lives.

The prosecution failed to prove the essential patient-harm part of United States v. Elizabeth A. Holmes, losing all counts related to fraud against patients. Most legal analysts attribute this failure to the narrow lines of inquiry the judge would allow. Complicating matters further was the crown-jewel database of patient tests of this multi-billion-dollar startup somehow became totally inaccessible, which sure has a powerful “dog ate my homework” feel.

For the past decade, “minimum viable product” has been a key development paradigm of software delivery. Get the smallest acceptable version of your product out there. Ship it, even knowingly incomplete, and iterate rapidly, based upon market feedback. But one lesson from Holmes’ downfall is that even though software is eating the world, not every business should be run like a video-game company.

If you’re in healthcare, I’d argue that “minimum viable” must also be compliant with the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” Put another way, Mark Zuckerburg’s “move fast and break things” ethos works well in some areas of tech targeting the low-risk, luxurious tippy-top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (think video games, video streaming services, maybe even social media), but it’s a terrible model if you’re Boeing, Bechtel or Theranos. Broadly speaking, the lower your new startup focuses on Maslow’s Hierarchy, the higher your duty of care and to quality assurance.

I don’t fault Musk for overpromising. In fact, I admire him in part because he is such a bold thinker. He exists in an era of cynicism, “we can’t because the other guy”, dare-I-say depressing determinism of the day.

Send rockets up into space, and land them vertically on remote-controlled floating platforms in the ocean? You bet. Reshape America’s transportation system with a better way? Very much in progress. One of the reasons he’s Time’s Person of The Year is he eschews small thinking and gets big things done. But yes, he also makes big claims that for now at least are still in the future.

As Holmes spends the next several years between jail and fighting her appeal, we in high-tech should spend some time thinking about the distinction between fraud, product puffery and overpromising. The line sometimes feels blurry, but what is ambition for tomorrow versus what is reality today should be made clear to investors, customers, employees and the press.

Got any Powerpoints you want to update?

Students and Parents Brace for an Unknown 2021-2022 College Year

The second academic year of COVID begins. What does it hold for those on adult’s launchpad?

As we tape up the boxes to ship off to two universities, COVID’s Delta variant continues to rage on in parts of the country. And my wife and I, like many parents, wonder what the 2021-2022 college school year will hold for our two sons. Will they spend much of the year in their room, watching lectures over Zoom? How well with they be able to connect with their peers? Will they have to mask-up constantly? What events will be possible?

Around the world, we are running a myriad of COVID natural experiments. College campuses are particularly interesting laboratories, because they are semi-closed societies with their own policy-setting administration, rules, monitoring tools and diktats. They involve residential living and close contact. They have built-in healthcare services. They tend to have very bimodal age distributions — lots of younger students and older faculty.

If you’re in college administration, you have many levers to tweak: mask mandates, social distancing, ventilation, symptomatic or asymptomatic testing frequency, and more. Thus, as with last year, there are literally hundreds of thousands of “natural experiments” being run. It’s as though each is its own video game simulation, but in real life, with very real consequences. Take thousands of people, put them in a place with a given set of rules, and watch the results. We’ll be watching our two boys’ experiences.

Judging up close even from a sample of two, the 2021-2022 intervention regimes will vary widely. Most have vaccine mandates, but policies around masks, social distancing, remote or in-person learning, faculty mandates, dining experiences, frequency of asymptomatic testing — even intangible sense of optimism — vary widely.

Such observational experiments are nowhere close to randomized controlled trials, but they’re close enough to offer some comparative insights and hypotheses. I have to confess I already have my hypothesis about which campus experience, overall, would be the one I’d choose for 2021-2022, and which of our sons will likely come out “winning” the year by sheer luck of where he’s landing. But then again, that’s applying my own biases to the mix, and luckily each is excited for their own rapidly-approaching year. It’s all subjective… until June 2022 and beyond, when the “right” policy mix to have chosen will be much clearer.

Comparing Two Schools

We are grateful beyond measure that our two sons are attending two terrific schools. One is off to his junior year at Northwestern University in the Chicago suburb of Evanston Illinois, and the other begins his first year at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee. Sibling rivalry will no doubt continue.

These two universities share a great deal, making for particularly interesting comparison. Both universities are world-class research institutions; each is listed as a Top 20 University by US News & World Report. They have attached, well-respected medical schools and teaching hospitals. Both take COVID-19 very seriously. Both have access to, and generate, leading-edge research on COVID-19 itself (see some of Vanderbilt’s and Northwestern’s.) In other words, we can take as a given that their administrations care about this pandemic deeply, and have ready access to world-class, informed experts and data.

Environmentally, too, they’re similar: both are located in relatively suburban campuses which are leafy, academic enclaves within larger cities. Both have enrollment in the tens of thousands, though Northwestern is just under twice Vanderbilt’s overall size.

Policy Similarity: Vaccination Required

With respect to COVID-19 policies, both universities require that all students be fully vaccinated. And thankfully, I’m seeing neither complaint nor concern about this on either university’s social media parents’ discussion groups.

But vaccination mandates for colleges certainly aren’t universally popular; this week, the Supreme Court reviewed a petition from a group of Indiana University students objecting to the vaccine mandate. Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected the petition on behalf of the court.

Thousands of colleges and universities have required that all incoming students be fully vaccinated, barring medical exception. But that’s where the similarities end.

Different Approaches, Different Intervention Postures

Northwestern’s Intervention-Intensive Posture

Northwestern is taking a decidedly more intervention-intensive posture. They reinstated a campus-wide masking requirement on August 4th 2021, applying to all students, faculty, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, except when in a private room or actively eating or drinking. All unvaccinated undergraduate and professional studies students are required to take two Abbott rapid antigen tests weekly; if you’re vaccinated (which our son is), there is no asymptomatic vaccination requirement.

As for in-person learning, at present writing, Northwestern’s administration commits only to a “best efforts will be made” messaging that there will be as many classes in-person.

For our rising junior, of his eighteen months as an NU student, just five of them have involved in-person classes, with the other 13 being via either pre-recorded lecture or streaming services. Last year at this time, we had the boxes packed and plane flights booked, only to hear at the last minute that sophomores and freshman shouldn’t go to campus, nor should they even come back to Evanston itself. A scramble ensued. A full one sixth of his college experience hasn’t even been spent in Evanston, but Zooming in from Seattle, and a third more Zooming in from his on campus room. Regardless of what comes next, he is part of the class that will have had the least amount of on-campus experience in Northwestern’s history. So restoration of in-person learning and activities are of special interest to him and us.

Vanderbilt’s Intervention-Lighter Posture

By contrast, Vanderbilt was among the first major universities to publicly commit, back in March of 2020, to full in-person, residential learning for Fall of 2021, and as of this writing, they have not retracted their stance. They’ve also got an in-person Family Weekend planned for the first weekend of October 2021, complete with football game and social and learning events. Northwestern tentatively has a plan for a Family Weekend November 5-7, and emphasizes with every communication that it is subject to local conditions.

With respect to masks, Vanderbilt has been more reticent to impose new requirements, though they did just say that as of August 16th, masks will be required indoors, except for offices and shared workspaces (for fully vaccinated individuals.) And they are actively monitoring when to update this guidance. For the 2021 school year start, masks are not mandated for vaccinated individuals in private offices or shared workspaces under most conditions.

So Much Variance At Adult Life’s Launchpad

In a week, our Seattle-raised eighteen year old will be getting settled in his first-year dorm room, getting to know his new roommate from Miami, Florida. The Miami student, benefitting from a lockdown-light approach in his city and state, will very likely have enjoyed his learning in-person all year. Our son will report that his senior year was spent connecting in via Zoom from his bedroom here in Seattle.

This kind of scene is playing out now in dorm rooms across the world. They’re comparing notes on us. Did we, the adults, get it right for them?

They’re finding out very clearly just how varied it’s all been, on a one-to-one level. A vast new layer of differences and advantages have been layered onto existing socioeconomic differences and living situations at home, abilities, disabilities and more. This layer involves voluntary, deliberate administrative policies imposed upon them, without their input, for better or worse.

Given the varied university experiences I’m already seeing as a parent, I fast forward in my mind to four years from now. When this generation graduates, they’ll meet someone at work or socially, and it will all start again: “Say. Did you too Zoom in for half of your college experience?” We are adding new layers upon layers of differentiation to an already stratified society. A kaleidoscope looking at a mosaic. Some will have burned the midnight oil to master standardized tests, others will have opted not to take them. Some will have endured a life of lockdowns or restriction, others relative openness. Today, at the very time they are reaching for new freedoms, they’re navigating highly varied regimes of what is and is not allowed. Checking in with an ever-changing rule regime, and staying within the prescribed guardrails (or finding ways not to, as the case may be) will be a big part of their psyche and skillset.

Information Gap for Parents and Students

These variances are necessary, I suppose, but I hope that we can both learn from them and make their differences more visible to students and families during their college selection process. Will there be a reckoning at the end of the year? A harm-reducing, optimal winning slate declared? Thus far, I’m underwhelmed by the degree of objective, empirical comparison of the intervention regimes imposed in the 2020-2021 school year, given all that’s at stake. Perhaps we don’t want to know what we’ve lost in the process; decidedly, some will lose, and others will come out ahead.

The impatience, too, is palpable. For instance, there is a growing sense on the Northwestern University Parents Facebook group, particularly among Class of 2024 and 2025 parents, that more effort should be made to publicly commit to full in-person learning, or at least be very transparent about which classes will be fully in-person. In regular “Return to Campus” discussions, Northwestern’s leadership has been relatively noncommittal, assuring that they’ve learned that some forms of remote education actually work very well for them. Humor helps with coping: Last year at this time, when Northwestern suddenly moved fully online for freshman and sophomores, my son joked, “We’re all University of Phoenix students now.”

That’s all well and good, and I appreciate that administrations have a lot to solve for. But it raises a question. Going forward, shouldn’t applicants and parents know more about a university’s overall intervention posture before enrolling?

Among other things, universities could be asked to report the percentage of in-person classes to guidebooks and college rating institutions like Barrons and the Princeton Review, and to include this information in their annual reporting to the “common data set” used in college comparison. And shouldn’t percentage of in-person learning be factored in as part of a college rankings? Do “mostly online” educational experiences deserve to be in their own evaluation category?

Now that COVID is endemic and remote education has gotten widespread awareness and trial, it’s quite likely colleges will continue to partially adopt remote education to varying degrees, particularly for undergraduates. I’ll admit it can have many benefits, but also many drawbacks. At a minimum, though, with the kinds of tuition fees these universities demand, it’s reasonable insist that they be more transparent about it, as it so dramatically impacts the college experience and might or might not match the desires of the student.

Now that we’re headed into year two, it’s time to let in some daylight. Universities have been too able to keep their decisions close-to-the-vest. Some appear too ready to impose cost on those who are already enrolled rather than aggressively fight for a full return to in-person learning. In my more cynical moments I feel some are even coasting a bit on a brand that got them there, not wanting to challenge what may be a somewhat reluctant cadre of faculty, without enough of a sense of immediate urgency to restore to the best that an in-person university learning experience can offer, which is what built their worldwide reputation in the first place. I hope I’m wrong.

Off to ship those boxes, and hope for the best.

UPDATE, August 17 2021: In a Return to Campus webinar yesterday, Northwestern’s administration indicated that most if not all undergraduate classes will be fully in-person. Remote viewing / recording options are discouraged, and ultimately up to the instructor.

Internet Consensus Is Not Truth

How do you know what’s true? Do you have enough healthy, respectful dissent in your information diet?

The past few weeks have been a major reckoning for some, and a missed opportunity for others.

The lab leak hypothesis is now out in the open for discussion. And even before we get to its truth or falsehood, some very big questions have been brought into full relief about the media and public discourse.

Start with these: How do we know what’s true? Who should decide which ideas are acceptable to discuss, and what should be shouted down and de-platformed? What is the value of dissent? How adept are we at updating our prior assumptions, which is the essence of learning?

Do you have enough respectful, informed dissent in your information diet, or would you instead prefer not to know the world as it is?

All the forces are here

Forty years ago, I began my journey into computing. When networking came about, I naively imagined the Information Age would be nothing but good. I thought putting computers and later mobile devices in peoples’ hands would help us much more fully understand the world. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, I felt interactivity and databases and more would lead to an ever-more informed public.

Today, it’s clear I missed several things in my optimism, such as the power of this interconnected fabric to amplify alternate realities and entrench fractured bubbles of consensus. It’s shown that vocal consensus can masquerade as truth. I greatly underestimated the ability of these bubbles to establish what appears to be truth, but are rather just ephemeral consensus of the loud, culturally dominant or self-appointed fact-checkers.

And I missed the huge economic incentives that interactivity would create for formerly credible media to evolve, without any sort of announcement, from informing to delighting and protecting their audience.

General News Economics Used to Reward a Little of Something For Everyone

Forty years ago, our news media had to endure high fixed costs, one-to-many, limited, expensive, and unidirectional channels to get the word out.

From the 1800’s through about the early 2000’s, getting your words to the public involved enormously costly printing presses, newsstand distribution infrastructures. In the broadcast TV world, production equipment and FCC broadcast spectra were expensive, unidirectional and very limited. It was nearly impossible to tell who truly was engaged. The famous adage was “I can tell you 100,000 people watched the show, I just can’t tell you which ones.”

To maximize profits in that world, you want everyone to buy your newspaper. You want everyone to watch your TV nightly news. After all, you’ve already done the work and expense to get it everywhere. You want all passersby to spend that quarter. You want all people to trust what you say. You don’t want anyone to flip that channel (an incentive which endures today, but for different reasons, and is even more pronounced.)

Editorially, what do you do to maximize profits, or at least… stay in business and grow? You have a clear incentive to program a little bit of something for everyone, and above all, maintain an “above the crowd” generalist credibility that isn’t at least easily seen as heavy-handed agenda-affirming. That’s why there were things like Point Counterpoint Segments and OpEd pages which welcomed diverse viewpoints. The news prided itself on relative objectivity, ostensibly stayed relatively neutral, and didn’t go “all in” on one narrative as often.

Today, each of these underlying economic variables has changed. News media exists in a low cost, often crowdsourced, many-to-many, ubiquitous, cheap and multidirectional world. In this world it makes sense for news outlets to go more “infotainment”, hot-take, sensational, and engage a much narrower audience by affirming and applauding their worldview. Your top priority becomes affirming the worldview of your readers rather than presenting evidence which might tell them they’ve got it wrong. Thus news media has been made more smug, much more activist, and ever more prone to get way out over its skis. Yet they still have many of the same brand reputation that they rightly earned in a different era. The CNN of Peter Arnett is no more; day by day, it’s transformed into an activist channel, there to tell you: you are correct and are right to feel better than others.

So it’s not just the computer and Internet’s fault, but these have brought major changes which have significantly altered what business The New York Times and CNN think they are now in. They are less involved in informing and more involved in affirming. We the public are hooked on never-ending news cycles, viral posts and memes.

Each of these destroy nuance — and the ability to hold multiple, competing ideas in one’s mind simultaneously. Do you have enough nuance and worldview-challenging advocacy in your social media feed?

This “Information Age” has served up the most powerful tool yet to “verify” and amplify any diagnosis or crackpot theory. It’s the most powerful tool yet to narrow the Overton Window of what’s allowed for polite discussion.

Combine all these forces, and you’ll begin to see why:

Elite consensus has gotten it wrong with increasing frequency.

2015-2021 has not been kind to the reputation of elite media. Time and again, their quest for sensational stories, or stories which affirm the worldview of one team versus another, they’ve gotten way out over their skis.

Teams of unknown and unaccountable middle managers have chosen their “fact checker” sources, and have selectively decided which ideas can catch fire and which should be snuffed out in the crib. “Fact-checking” has been corrupted by ideological forces, who all too often, very unevenly apply rubrics to favor one narrative or tribe over another.

What happens when this consensus gets it wrong? What are the costs? What are the risks? Do we even have reputational consequences for that, or will audiences care?

Will we allow open discussion of plausible ideas respectfully, or will we continue to shout down anything which doesn’t rhyme with our worldview? How much faith should we place in “fact checkers” and credentialed “experts” versus our own common sense? What will happen to our society over time if Big Tech shuts down the discussion of common sense explainers for partisan reasons? Does the opinion of someone who repels you politically mean you have to follow your impulse and reflexively take the opposite stance?

Is all of this any kind of excuse for being blinkered, if your job is, say, that of a journalist? A journalist should be helping people to understand the world as it is. What has happened to formerly credible name brand media outlets? Is there any hope of righting that ship?

I had my own journey on this with respect to being one of the first — and still, one of the few — in my social circle to openly discuss the lab-leak hypothesis.

The Lab Leak Hypothesis

A year and a half ago, those paying attention noticed a startling coincidence: the coronavirus outbreak started in metropolitan Wuhan, which just happened to have a relatively new facility which was known to be studying bat-borne coronaviruses.

It was also known that lab leaks have happened multiple times before. Even in America’s most advanced labs. We are human, and mistakes happen, even enormously consequential ones.

It was also known that officials explicitly warned about safety at this very lab. And we have a video interview in December 2019 confirming that bat-based coronavirus research was happening in late 2019 at that lab, from a principle character in this story who was helping to sponsor/promote it.

And yet, any lab-leak scenario was immediately labeled debunked conspiracy thinking (Washington Post), and a fringe idea (New York Times).

The idea of natural vs. engineered and lab-involved vs. no-lab were projected onto a single axis, when anyone with a brain knows it is possible for a virus to be naturally evolved yet STILL leak through human lab activity. Nope, to the media of 2020, it had to be either engineered AND leaked or natural AND not leaked. Thus, when an orchestrated letter was published in Lancet saying “couldn’t be engineered” this was amplified by the media as near certain proof that the lab leak hypothesis was bonkers.

Spooky. In my largely deep-blue bubble of friends, family and colleagues, virtually no one was talking about the lab leak hypothesis. Why not? It’s the greatest health crisis of our lifetime — isn’t it important to know how it started?

On TV, no one was talking about it on the “respectable” channels. In big-banner “prestige” news sites, likewise. Yet the coincidence had to be striking to more people than just me, right?

On January 26th 2020, well before the first American died of what would become known as COVID-19, I took to Facebook and wrote this:

The piece I linked to: Inside the Chinese lab poised to study the world’s most dangerous pathogens.

The above conclusion required precisely zero understanding of molecular biology or epidemiology, just a common-sense assessment of the startling coincidence, if these two facts were unrelated.

That thread currently stands at 80 comments, with my own a good 10-20% of them. With 400 Facebook friends, only a dozen or so decided to weigh in; there is surprising disinterest among intelligent folks about the nature of the origin of the virus. For context, I’m politically independent, have two masters degrees, worked in high tech, live in Seattle, and the only reason I’m mentioning that here is to bolster a guess that I may have a disproportion of friends and family members and contacts who are smart, enlightened, deep-blue and mostly progressive Democrats in my social media feed compared, say, to the nation at large.

Yet smart and highly progressive friends jumped in with comments like:

“Y’all realize this is a conspiracy theory being pushed by Steve Bannon… Also spouted by ‘reputable’ dirt bags like Tom Cotton. Instead of stating that there’s no evidence of it, but hard to believe it’s a coincidence, let’s wait till there is ANY evidence. Otherwise, you’re repeating 100% unadulterated garbage.”

Do you interpret this as a valid analysis, an invitation to future discussion, or an attempt to shame it down?

Though this person still remains a dear friend, sadly, I eventually had to unfriend another former friend, who repeatedly insinuated that even discussing the lab-leak hypothesis on social media was somehow outright racist.

To that I’d argue:

  1. Not only is scientific and evidentiary inquiry not only not racist but necessary,
  2. We the public are funding scientific research all the time and have every right (and even a responsibility) to think aloud about policy risk/reward tradeoffs,
  3. Spreading the “bat soup” and “stop eating bats” as the then alternate explainer is to me at least far more pejorative, racist and culturally insensitive than suggesting that totally-reasonable-to-imagine human error might have led to a massive outbreak.

Look. I have curiosity and empathy here on this question. I can easily envision myself as a lab researcher collecting samples, doing what I believe to be very well-intentioned research, not noticing a hole in my lab suit, getting sick, and unwittingly being Patient Zero. How mundane! How entirely innocent! But how tragic.

Why does this need to come with value judgment assumptions? We didn’t blame all Russians for Chernobyl, nor did we blame all Americans for Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon or other “once in a lifetime” man-made disasters. Nor should we. We can and should be able to differentiate between human error — here, it very well could have been just one slightly careless individual, as we ALL are — and an entire nation, government, or people.

Back to the comment above. Note the argumentation: it’s not whether it’s true or not, nor what evidence points toward or away, it’s whom the idea is associated with. The idea and facts matter far less than which tribe promotes the idea. How dangerous.

Tribal consensus is not truth

As the above response illustrates, for way too many Americans, the rubric to assess truth begins with:

  • Is my “tribe” in favor of this or against it?

… rather than looking at the evidence for or against a particular idea, and reasoning.

While the lab leak hypothesis has been covered and investigated by right-of-center media and Twitter since January 2020, it’s largely been shielded from analysis. It’s been deliberately distorted, conflated and exaggerated by people employed by once-credible news brands to “dunk” on the opposition.

Yet despite this, over the past several weeks, the information fog on the left and center-left has finally been lifting.

First, New York Magazine (January 4, 2021) and then former New York Times science journalist Nicholas Wade (May 5, 2021) have brought the lab-leak hypothesis ever more credibility to holdouts on the left, such that it can no longer be cast in the tin-foil hat bin. It can no longer be ignored. The Overton Window has been pried open with the crowbar of accumulating questions and evidence, despite prestige media trying hard to keep it shut.

If one puts aside what governments and highly-conflicted individuals say, the evidence, though circumstantial, continues to mount, and points entirely in one direction. Let’s not underplay circumstantial evidence… that’s evidence too, just not conclusive. But there’s an enormous pile of it.

“Leaked from a Lab” is not equivalent to “Engineered”

A key method of what appears to be deliberate conflation was the immediate rush to elide “leaked from a lab” with “engineered.” But here’s the thing. Leaked from a lab doesn’t in any way require that it be engineered.

Natural/engineered and lab/no-lab are on different, independent axes. One neither requires nor implies the other:

A highly contagious virus can evolve naturally, be relatively isolated naturally, but then suddenly harvested from remote caves by humans, transported to and studied in a lab for academic purposes, and then, carelessly discarded. Any layman can easily envision an epidemic started that way, and I’d call that highly plausible scenario “leaked from a lab.” Note that there are biologists/virologists who say that the “furin cleavage” aspects of this virus which bond remarkably well to human cells (and their lack of presence in any other coronavirus) make this option highly unlikely or even mathematically impossible to conceive — but I don’t have any expertise to estimate those odds.

One of the more fascinating origin hypotheses in the green box above (lab involved, yet also naturally evolved) is the Mojiang Miners Passage Hypothesis. I find much of this explanation compelling; that paper by two well-credentialed virologist PhDs is very much worth a read.

Turning to the vertical axis (engineered vs. naturally evolved), I have no credentials or experience whatsoever which would allow me to weigh in intelligently on whether the virus was engineered via so-called “gain of function” research, so I have no strong or informed opinions on whether it was engineered.

I do find it a shocking coincidence that Peter Daszak was trumpeting gain of function research going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on bats on coronaviruses in 2019 in this video interview in December 2019. And I find it highly interesting that he claimed to have “no conflicts” in the Lancet letter which he helped organize, when he clearly has conflicts.

Wade and others do a very capable job breaking down some of the arguments about engineered vs. not-engineered for laypeople like me.

But most laypeople can use considerable common sense to evaluate the odds of which square the horizontal axis (no lab v. lab involvement) lands.

(There is at least a third axis — intentional v. deliberate. As mentioned below, I fail to see any sensible argument around it being deliberate or malicious.)

The Media and Social Media

Regardless of the ultimate explanation of what happened, the media, fact-checker and social media “what speech is allowed” failure on this was enormous, and perhaps even the more important story, because it affects all other stories and news items. It’s about how we are allowed understand the world.

There was a concerted effort to load up the lab leak hypothesis with the “must be engineered” requirement. The next step was to provide credentialed though highly conflicted experts to “debunk” the “engineered” assertion, thus call the entire thing a “fringe theory.” As Wade detailed, the key person who orchestrated a letter in Lancet which became the canonical “couldn’t have been engineered in a lab” letter, has direct connections to not only gain of function research but the Wuhan lab. He has financial and career interest in a particular narrative being true. This was known back in January 2020, but how many media outlets brought this salient fact to your attention?

Look. I certainly don’t think it was malicious, nor have I ever thought it was intentional. I have never thought either of those things. I don’t know why a government would ever want to release something and endanger its population. THAT is quite crazy and seems reasonable to toss in a tin-foil hat bin.

But mistakes happen. And it’s not racist to contemplate them.

I would say the same of accidents at Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon, Three Mile Island, and Exxon Valdez, for instance. They are human-caused, but they are enormously consequential. Because we are alive, accidents happen. Even enormously catastrophic ones.

But regardless of engineered or natural origin, journalists who claim “there’s no evidence” are lying. There is copious evidence. But it’s circumstantial. ALL of it points in the direction of lab-leak. Among them:

  • If cellphone mobility data is to be believed, why did traffic come to a halt around the lab for two weeks in October 2019?
  • In more than 3.7 million square miles of mainland China, why Wuhan? What are the odds?
  • Viruses from horseshoe bats from Yunnan province share 97% of the genetic makeup of the virus, yet they’re 1,000+ miles away from Wuhan. Why Wuhan, and not villages along the way?
  • Why is China blocking access to the caves, and using shifting excuses for doing so?
  • Why has no host yet been found in 80,000+ samples?
  • Why is China refusing to allow a second WHO team in?
  • Why were lab samples destroyed before outside experts could verify?
  • Why are 76,000+ hospitalization records requests being stonewalled?
  • Why were lab workers among the first hospitalized?
  • Why did the chair of the party issue an urgent directive to improve biosafety at labs in December 2019?
  • What are we to make of job postings for bat-borne coronavirus research at that lab, and why are they now taken down?
  • A 2019 paper written by WIV researchers about China’s effort to add more high-level bioresearch labs warned, “The experience of laboratory biosafety personnel training is relatively lacking … Insufficient training staff and training problems such as uneven standards require urgent improvement and improvement.” A separate 2019 paper by Yuan Zhiming, a chief scientist at Wuhan, described systemic deficiencies at high-security labs: “Maintenance cost is generally neglected; several high-level BSLs have insufficient operating funds for routine, yet vital processes.” Most laboratories “lack specialized biosafety managers and engineers,” he wrote.
  • If of natural no-lab-involved origin, how do we explain why the outbreak happened in October/November, when horseshoe bats are generally dormant during this time?
  • And why 2019, and not dozens of years earlier? Is it coincidence that just the year prior, the lab went online? Is it just a coincidence that in late December 2019, a major funder of this research was confirming in a video interview that such research was happening?

Even the list above isn’t complete. Think of the astronomical odds for all these things to be true, a major coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, and yet no lab involvement. The odds!

None of these pieces of evidence were unknown or unknowable to journalists months ago. Somehow, in the past week or two, we’re allowed to discuss them. Even in the breakthrough summary by 30+ year science writer Nicholas Wade (a must-read), there are very few if any “brand new” findings. Nearly all are months old.

But somehow, we’re now able to talk about it and give it its due consideration.

The Biden administration, though it disbanded the prior investigative team, is now calling for a new report in 90 days.

Where were the journalists at prestige media?

All of a sudden, though virtually no brand new blockbuster evidence has been shown, there is growing social acceptance of discussing and considering the lab leak origin theory of COVID. It is no longer gate-kept by Facebook or Twitter or others.

Lucky you. You won’t get deplatformed, like evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein was.

Please, Big Tech colleagues at Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Amazon and elsewhere: can we please use this moment to reflect a bit?

  • Many major news brands that we once trusted have given up objectivity.
  • Too few journalists view their jobs as describing the world as it is.
  • Internet consensus is not truth.

It’s also been fascinating to watch people’s reaction to this unfolding, especially if they are in the business of informing people.

For prominent journalists, it is revealing who can update their prior assumptions and who cannot. It’s revealing who is actually willing to allow evidence and facts lead them, and who instead doubles-down in the face of mounting evidence against it.

Some remain blissfully unaware or — for reasons I still cannot understand — incurious.

Some are taking a “told-you-so” victory lap, which I’d say is a little premature. But it is NOT premature to say that the media, Twitter, Facebook and Google need to STOP DEPLATFORMING PEOPLE for sharing reasonable ideas respectfully. Even most unreasonable ideas need to be shared and aired. The best antidote to speech with which we disagree is more and better speech.

Still others cling to the ever-more-tenuous threads. And this is a pitiful sight to see in some journalists — they believe either that “we were forced to go into this mode because of an administration which lied a lot” or “no evidence either way”, even though most of them have spent more than a year blasting one hypothesis yet giving the other a very light touch.

The final option some are now turning to “Who cares how it started, it wouldn’t have changed anything.”

Or Jonathan Chait, who states its just “not that important”:

To which I ask — did it matter how Chernobyl happened? Why do fire departments have both firefighters and fire inspectors? Why does the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) exist?

Those who have falsely and recklessly characterized the lab leak hypothesis as “debunked”, “fringe” or a “conspiracy theory” have been like picketers at an NTSB investigation after the plane crash. They have actively hampered efforts to marshal national and international public support for an independent investigation while the evidence was fresh. Australia tried to get one going. It was defanged. We can never know what might have happened if CNN, NPR, The New York Times, Washington Post and others were much more good at their job of investigative journalism, letting facts and not ideology lead the narrative, rather than the other way around.

Yes, the Trump administration absolutely lied a lot. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t vote for him.

One of Trump’s greatest flaws is that he thinks every issue must be in some way about Trump. One of our biggest flaws as a society for the past six years is that too often, we do too.

TRUTH should not be relative to what other people that we don’t like are saying. Truth is truth.

Many major news brands that we once trusted have given up objectivity

If your information diet consists solely of CNN, The New York Times, NPR, MSNBC, the Washington Post and their associated podcasts and social media feeds, you’d have spent much of 2020 believing believing that schools cannot be safely reopened. That Governor Andrew Cuomo was a great leader during COVID. That Florida conspired to hide COVID deaths. That children were at high risk of severe complications from COVID. That open beaches were worrisome. That teachers unions were working hard on students’ behalf. And that a lab-leak origin for COVID was a fringe conspiracy theory.

And, over the course of the past few months, each of these shibboleths have been revealed to be either highly doubtful or patently untrue.

They earned wide Internet consensus. But there is a difference between Internet consensus and truth.

Journalists Reckon With Worldview Adjustment… Or Not

This moment has been a great opportunity to see which journalists truly follow the evidence, and which cling hard to the narrative they wish to be true. Who can update their prior assumptions and who cannot?

In August of 2010, Emily Rauhala of the Washington Post tweeted:


Note that she states “without showing or stating evidence.” The evidence for lab leak is circumstantial but it exists. It existed well before her tweet too, and it is substantial. It includes things like the actions of the Chinese to destroy evidence, the proximity of the lab to the first recorded outbreak, the fact that researchers in the lab are known to have researched bat-borne coronaviruses in the months prior to the outbreak, that data has been deleted, that hospitalization data has been withheld, that mobility data (if true) strongly suggests there was a slowdown in traffic in October 2019, that bats are generally in hibernation in November, and more.

In courtrooms every day, plenty of juries reach their verdict about guilt or innocence based upon a body of circumstantial evidence plus false exculpatory statements. The standard here should be far higher given the stakes, but it is absolutely disingenuous for “journalists” like Emily Rauhala to state that there was or is “no evidence.”

You’d think Emily would reflect on that a bit. Instead, she tweeted:

Shant Mesrobian’s tweet here summarizes my views on this:

Over at The New York Times, “science” reporter Apoorva Mandavilli decided to remind everyone yesterday that the lab leak hypothesis, in her view, has “racist roots”:

She was rightly put on full blast by Glenn Greenwald and others:

As of yesterday, she continues to assert the lab leak hypothesis is “not plausible.” Yet she’s not explained why she feels that way.

I asked her several questions about it here. (Note that I’m using the phrase “zoonotic origin” as shorthand to mean “lab-uninvolved in any way.” That is, the virus can have both zoonotic origin AND be introduced to Wuhan as a pandemic through a lab-leak accident. To me, that’s a lab-leak.)

As of this writing, she’s not responded:

MSNBC ran plenty of coverage distorting and ridiculing the lab leak hypothesis:

There are some good pieces which attempt to dissect why the liberal media got so far out over its skis on this one.

A great segment from the Dark Horse podcast:

Why Dissent Matters

The 1973 Yom Kippur War, known in the Arab World as the Ramadan War, was a truly existential crisis for Israel. And it illustrated the risks of underestimating dangers of unforseen events.

Israel’s surprise and unpreparedness happened because the military establishment was captivated and captured by what they called “The Concept of Arab Intentions.” This was a preset world view that did not even imagine the possibility of an all-out assault.

From that point on, Israel created what they called the Tenth Man Rule. In this rule, if there are nine people who hold one view, it is the obligation of the tenth person in the room to argue the opposite.

Do you have a tenth man in your bubble? I can assure you that Big Tech recommendation platforms do NOT abide by the Tenth Man Rule. All ten will, by design, titillate and reinforce, rather than challenge your priors.

Here, media consensus shut down momentum for an impartial, independent forensic investigation, when any evidence would have been much fresher:

Too few journalists view their job as describing the world as it is.

What to do about it?

If you’ve not read Matt Taibbi’s thoughts on this, you should: We Need a New Media System. Most journalists no longer work from the facts toward the narrative. They work from the point of view of their audience, backward, cherry picking the facts which support that worldview.

The only way you combat that is to be your own editor more actively. Pop your filter bubble:

  • If you’re left of center, follow a few right of center news sources and social media feeds.
  • If you’re right of center, follow a few left of center news sources and social media feeds. (Far less effort is involved here, as it’s baked into major media outlets.)
  • Don’t unfriend or unfollow people just because they may believe differently than you.
  • Don’t over-characterize things as “disinformation” when you don’t really know if it’s true.
  • When you miss a major story, find people who didn’t. Follow them.
  • There is value in dissent.
  • Be unafraid to update your priors. Be forgiving of others who do — there are tremendous forces “hooking” people on one storyline after another.
  • Remember that The New York Times is no longer The New York Times. CNN is no longer CNN. NPR is no longer NPR. Even The Washington Post is no longer The Washington Post.
  • Corollary: STOP CHIDING people from sharing news pieces from sources that carry a certain brand, at least if they are within the spectrum of reason. Find the sources which didn’t mislead you about the non-“debunked” nature of this hypothesis, and give them more credibility. Perhaps follow a few of them. Yes, it’s OK to discount extreme leftist or rightist pieces, but stop narrowing your information window so much! STOP exaggerating the scope of what “disinformation” actually is — it’s not “information which helps the other side.”
  • Let speech and sunlight be the antidote. Favor freedom of speech rather than deplatforming.
  • Remember that internet consensus is not the same as truth.

There are enormous incentives for formerly great investigative outlets to perpetuate a narrative their audience wishes to hear. Just as you’ll eventually hear only one genre of music on Pandora or Spotify if you “Like” only songs from that genre, if you only consume news media from one side of the spectrum, you probably won’t know what’s true and what’s not. Choose accordingly.

Will the Class of 2021 Have a Graduation?

I’ve written previously about the Class of 2021, a unique cohort that’s had to adapt the most important moment of their young lives to totally new conditions. They’ve had little normalcy, nor semblances of junior and senior year as most of us know it. I’ve got a son in the high school Class of 2021, and his and his peers’ lives have been upended in so many ways, from leadership and work opportunities to social gatherings, budding romances and more.

It’s January 2021. As the pandemic rages on, what will high school and college graduations look like in June?

Right now, despite the national mood, I’m cautiously optimistic.

I think there’s a decent chance that America’s high schools and college will have hybrid ceremonies involving both in-person events and remotely-viewable events. But to attend in person, based upon state and city, it might require proof of vaccination to participate.

Reasons that have me optimistic for at least some form of outdoor graduation ceremony in large parts of the country:

  • Multiple vaccines are now out, and though they’re running into problems in deployment, I think by June we should be on a roll.
  • We have three vaccines that should be at full production by early March.
  • Seasonal charts tend to indicate a subsiding of massive waves in June.
  • There’s increasing evidence that outdoor, open-air gatherings are less often a source of transmission. I don’t think large indoor ceremonies will take place. Advice to event planners — get those tent reservations in soon!

Whether in-person May or June ceremonies will exist largely depends upon the case counts in the city and county around March and April.

While it’s hard to look at the projections by IHME and get super-optimistic, I do think they show that by early March, we should be in the infection-rate decline phase. Here’s the global projection:

IHME lets you type in your state to see how it varies. For instance, here’s the projection for Washington State, where I live. It leaves me optimistic about in-person ceremonies:

Washington State Infection Rates, projected by IMHE

For most high schools and colleges, it’s a reasonably estimate to say that logistical planning will have to be finalized by about April 15th, and that the general tenor and sense of optimism in March will be quite directionally important to administrators.

Of course, actions you can take to help the odds improve include following the guidelines of your school, city, county and state.

Permit me to close with one suggestion — if you’re looking for a way, cancellation or in-person, to celebrate these wonderful members of the Class of 2021, please consider making them a special video. I’ve created a site to make this really easy, gathering kudos from friends and family:

Create a Video To Celebrate Your Grad

Having said all this, it’s great to pull together a milestone video to celebrate your grad., an app I created, is the easiest way to create a memorable graduation video, and it started specifically for that purpose. Just create a card and invite people to it. They can upload selfie videos, photos and memories to celebrate the big occasion.

In Act II, Will We Wait Until Our Row Number Is Called?

At this time, we’d like to offer early boarding to passengers traveling with small children, and our active military members.”

once-familiar refrain at airports

It’s just before Easter, and it’s starting to feel like we’re entering Act II of the COVID-19 crisis. The frightening curves are flattening in many parts of the country. The number of new infections in hotspots like New York and Washington State are leveling off — even showing very early signs of decline. Here in King County Washington, the Army is folding up the emergency medical center at CenturyLink field and extra ventilators are being returned.

Spring is in the air. People are itching to get back to “normal.”

But public health experts, from Dr. Anthony Fauci to leading epidemiologists to highly-informed, prescient philanthropists like Bill Gates all remind us that it will really take a safe and effective vaccine to fully resume “normalcy.”

History has clear warnings: we backed off of quarantines way too early in past epidemics. The Spanish Flu came in three waves; it was the second wave of the Spanish Flu that was so deadly.

See the source image
Deaths by Spanish Flu in Three Waves

Most historians agree that we made a very fatal error in our response to the Spanish Flu in the summer of 1918. We concluded the crisis had passed, and went fully back to “normal” far too soon in many parts of the country. Yet we also cannot stay in lockdown for 18 months. So most experts say the remedy is to find some kind of gradual, phased, prioritized resumption of activities, with things like concerts and large-stadium sporting events being absolute last on the list.

We also need much more widespread testing, and an army of contact tracers, to really begin getting back to some more restricted version of “normal.” Germany is going to a system of certification — if you’ve demonstrated the presence of antibodies, you’re likely to have more freedoms. Will we be willing to submit to this level of “surveillance?”

Bill Gates discusses staged re-openings

What’s clear right now is that ideally, what’s next for America will likely involve some kind of staged, gradual easing of certain kinds of activities. But will it be orderly? I think it will be very difficult to hold it together in a staged way.

Boarding Soon

In other words, we are in that itchy, eyeing your fellow-airline-traveler moment when all the families with young children and uniformed military service members have boarded the plane, and there’s no visible queue.

The gate agent has gone silent. The minutes tick by. You’ve got a carryon bag and one personal item too, just like all the passengers you see in the waiting area. Do you get up out of your chair and start lingering over to form the line? What happens when you see the first ten people doing so? What happens if it’s an airline that’s burned you many times before, seemingly not caring about enforcing any kind of queuing order, or imposes a system you think is unfairly or capriciously run?

In that moment, everyone comes up with their own rationalization as to why they should board next. “I’ve got a connection, and cannot wait for my bag. I bet they don’t.” “My bag has been lost twice in the past two years. I bet theirs hasn’t.” “They never enforce the rules. I tried following them a couple times, but I’ve been burned before. Not this time.” We tell ourselves these little lies that rationalize our place ahead of everyone else’s. I’m guilty of it. Aren’t you?

How do we re-start an economy when we cannot have everyone doing everything at once? We are not an authoritarian society; not yet at least.

We do have things like social shaming and social pressure. Anyone who has spent any time on Nextdoor has seen callouts of teens speeding through neighborhoods (with photos), etc. We’ve got hashtags and cancel-culture; not something I love.

We also have things like a market-based system, where supply/demand and pricing (i.e., money) is often used to “allocate” scarce resources. But that is clearly not the acceptable way to tackle this question in this particular instance until perhaps the very last stages of recreation and luxuries. (For instance, if I squint, I could see a de-densified baseball game with three seats mandated between everyone, where you have to buy not just your seat but the two to your left.)

Perhaps we can use penalties for line-jumping, but we have an overburdened police force. It’s unclear that the penalties for “line jumping” will be very high, because they will generally be violating civil liberties that we hold dear.

It certainly makes sense that first responders and healthcare workers and “essential workers” have to take priority — and they have. We’ve been able to agree upon that as a society; no fights have broken out, and very few (if any) people are elbowing to get ahead of these obvious cases.

But we enter the grey area soon. In other words, we’re at the point where we’ve called for the families with small children and active military members to board the plane. Who’s next? And what will we do when people inevitably jump the line?

At the extremes — health and food — it’s easy to agree on what’s “essential.” But now, in Act II, we soon enter a phase in which virtually everyone will want to rationalize why their work or visits or service should be in the next group. And to a certain extent, they’ll be able to.

As Americans though, we’re unprepared for the kind of orderly queuing that this phase will require. We have at least 40% of the nation that not only doesn’t trust the administration, it carries a large amount of contempt for it. We have a press which largely casts every decision as a referendum on the president, good or bad.

Instinctively, this is a question of whether we will value the greater good over our own individual good. And the greater good is amorphous — it’s hard to get a feel for it. And the people who report on it (today’s “media” or even the president) are hardly trusted.

Overall, at least in the King County area, I think we are doing a very good job prioritizing public health and staying home, washing hands, etc. But this will become much more difficult to maintain as the data points in positive rather than dire directions, and as people start to observe other people jumping the quarantine.

The American Enterprise Institute has done a pretty good job I think in kicking off the conversation about how to prioritize re-opening, in their report: “A Roadmap to Reopening.” It’s a good starting framework to begin the conversation; given its source, it certainly has its own biases, and those should be questioned, and augmented with all kinds of stakeholders and their say. I cite the AEI’s report here not because I’m convinced it’s the right framework but because it’s the first (and, as of this writing, only) systematic argument I’ve seen on the matter.

This will not be an easy process. If you’ve ever boarded a full commercial flight, you know what I mean. You want it to look like this until each group is called:

Orderly waiting

But just as soon as the gate agents start speaking about the flight, it starts to look like this:

Over many dozens of flights, I’ve observed that attempts at keeping it orderly break down pretty quickly.

It’s also cultural, of course. Some societies are orderly and queue well. We are not one of those societies. But fortunately we’re also not the worst at it, either.

In America, the most common scenario seems to be that we do observe preference in an orderly way for obvious, verifiable cases — e.g., military service members in uniform and parents with very small children. These groups to me are analogous to observing the essential nature of healthcare workers, first responders, and grocery workers during Act I of the COVID-19 crisis. They’re obvious. They’re verifiable.

But when signs of priority are not easily visible nor verifiable, it gets very sticky, quickly. Because everyone wants to be in that second wave, and everyone has a rationalization for why they should be there.

I’ve noticed that when gate agents phrase it as “We’d like to offer pre-boarding to those who need a little extra time getting settled,” that more amorphous need-based description can lead to much more line-jumping, suspicion and ill-feelings toward our fellow passengers. “Do you really need that extra time, you seem to be doing just fine…” we might sometimes say to ourselves if we cannot observe the issue.

Have you seen someone who appears perfectly able park in a handicapped spot? Do you know for a fact that they shouldn’t be entitled to that privilege? How do you feel about their actions? Have you ever tried to verify it? Sounds personal, right? We’re in for more of that.

In such situations, the dam breaks quickly. After a small handful of people with “secret tickets” start lining up and seem to be breaking the rules, everyone gets up out of their chairs to mark their place in line. Many do so knowing they have lower boarding priority than people right next to them. When people observe a few people not following the rules, the “crowd” decides not to follow the rules.

The moment that anyone observes “cheating” or “line jumping,” the entire social contract breaks down. The problem is, it only takes one or two such people to have suspicions.

Skeptical people exist everywhere in our society. If anything, our tendency to embrace skepticism has only increased over the past ten years, as bedrock assumptions we may have had about order or democracy or our voice “counting” have been repeatedly challenged. I am one such skeptic (yet optimist.) I do however stipulate that my ticket out of this crisis and into “semi-normalcy” should be in Boarding Group Z, seat 64B.

Please assign me the middle seat in the very back of the plane. But I also only have tolerance for so much observed cheating — spit-balling, I have tolerance for maybe 50% of the population noticeably cheating before I too, jump in and break the guidelines. (Why not sooner? Because I still hold out hope that we will be smarter. Only when the last gasp has been eviscerated do I jump in with the crowd.) Another way of stating this is that I’m not going to be in the first 50% that breaks the rules, but I’m probably not going to be the very last individual to do so, either.

America is a nation that allocates most scarce resources through economic means — but this phased resumption of activity isn’t something that capitalism is very good at. We are competitive. We value liberty. Yet in this case, it shouldn’t be those with the most dollars that go to the front of the line here — it should really be some staged sense of what has the highest “net societal return on effort” with least virus-spreading danger, highest need in restarting an economy, most at-risk economically if-they-don’t-go-early.

Perhaps, as Bill Gates has suggested, it should be possible for small groups of young people to physically get together in classrooms for learning, because the young are not very susceptible to this virus.

Whatever plan we take, we likely need to figure out ways to increase the chances that the “boarding order” is maintained. I don’t see how we do this without penalties of some kind — either small fines or social call-outs as line-jumping occurs. At a minimum, we need a lot more robust testing and organized contact-tracing — testing should even be available without a doctors’ orders, at any pharmacy and/or drive-thru stations.

To the High School Class of 2021

March 2020: I’m reading lots of pieces (for instance here, here and here) about the COVID Class of 2020, detailing many real and heartbreaking stories of the traditions and moments that high school seniors are losing. And on social media, I’m reading wonderful and genuine expressions of sympathy, like this one on Nextdoor:

No question: high school seniors have it particularly rough. I would have hated for the world to go into suspension and lock-down in the final months of high school.

Their culminating senior year is cut short. Proms postponed. Parties and get-togethers cancelled. Cherished traditions skipped. Sports tournaments cancelled. Tournaments and competitions cancelled. Romances curtailed. Long-promised milestones, often including trips and celebrations, erased. Graduation ceremonies altered and postponed. Some have anxieties about certain colleges perhaps even rescinding admissions due to incomplete transcripts. (I sure hope those fears are unfounded; if colleges do, that would be really outrageous. I hope and expect they’ll be forgiving and lenient, and currently have no reason at this writing to doubt this.)

For graduating seniors, so many important opportunities to bond with classmates and cement lifelong friendships have been erased and can never again be re-created.

Thinking back to senior year of high school, those last few months as summer approached were so important in creating lifelong cherished memories. I grieve their loss with them. For them, just as freedoms to go explore the world are finally opening up, the stay-at-home order says “not so fast.”

As June arrives, we will see many more articles about this COVID Class of 2020, as we should. From Twitter to Facebook to Nextdoor, I’m seeing those sentiments echoed.

Yet in this wave of well-earned empathy, I hope we do not also forget about the class right behind it. High school juniors have so many “take action to plan the next stage of your life” pressures, and must be feeling a lot of anxiety right now.

The constraints of near or total lock-down are no doubt multiplying the anxieties in an already anxious, always pivotal school-year. The Class of 2021 is seeing the messages of empathy toward seniors too, and may soon start to wonder if people are understanding what’s happening right now to them.

Have Some Empathy for High School Juniors, Too

I know I risk inadvertently framing this as some kind of “competition” here, and this is truly not what I’m intending to do. The purpose of my piece is “YES, and…”, not a senseless “who has it worse” contest.

Permit me, though, to turn for a moment to the cohort immediately following the graduating class of 2020: America’s high school juniors. Because I’ve not yet seen a single profile of a their COVID-impacted world in media or social media.

Do you remember junior year, eleventh grade?

It’s the year that most adults have been telling you, since before you set foot inside high school, that it’ll be one of the most consequential of your academic life, especially if you wish to go to your dream college. It’s a year that most schools offer the most challenging and intellectually stimulating classes, and open up the widest opportunities for you to get involved and demonstrate leadership. It’s a year that a lead part in the school play finally becomes a reality, or first chair at violin, or captain of the sports team. It’s a year that many authority figures and school cultures communicate is incredibly consequential. With everything from AP classes to SATs/ACTs, competitions, sports and extracurriculars, for those whose future has long been set on going to college, it’s a critical year.

What happens when that world is completely (or nearly completely) put into suspension for some, through no fault of their own? Just to frame the relative timelines here, for those seeking to go to a 4-year college, most applications are due generally between October 31st and (at the latest) about late February. Most high school juniors begin to take standardized testing in the spring of junior year.

So, across the nation, high school seniors were 3+ months past submission of their college applications, awaiting results in the mail (or by email), as their schools began to go to remote-only or shutdown (or for some — had no change.) Seniors’ applications and academic records from the universities’ points of view, were relatively unimpeded by shutdowns or remote schooling. Most received their college admission status letters (acceptance or rejection) last week.

For high-school juniors, though, the shut-down occurred smack in the middle of the highest-intensity academic and extracurricular moments of most of their entire high school experience. Unlike high school seniors, their college applications are only a few months away. And they must be thinking — what all might I say? Do I write that I had worked hard to line up several of these opportunities, but they suddenly vanished, due to reasons completely beyond my control? And if so, how does that make me any different than any of the millions who also experienced this loss?

And what about the many seniors in the Class of 2020 who will be taking gap years? If a sizable proportion of the Class of 2020 takes a gap year, does that reduce the number of college spots for the class of 2021? How will colleges equitably handle these constraints?

My wife and I have a high school junior, and of any of us in the family (we have a college freshman, a high school junior and a seventh grader), his life is by far the most up-ended right now. And that’s not just my opinion — each of our kids strongly agrees. He’s dealing with it in stride, is lucky that his school has adapted so well to remote-learning. And he’s finding ways to volunteer and help his classmates and community, as well as some delicious baked goods at home, as he attempts to master the art of bread-making, doing his best to bring comfort to all of us, as he has throughout his life.

He’s very lucky: his school is continuing with their academic schoolyear. He’s able to participate remotely every day of the week. Homework, he reports, has roughly doubled, but he’s keeping up. He’s doing his culminating American History essay, which, for his school, is a thesis-level project with legendary requirements and tough grading. No question, he’s one of the luckiest ones. And fortunately, he realizes it.

What I’m saying, though, is that as we lament the losses of the graduating class of 2020, let’s also remember that high school juniors are also feeling tremendous pressures and anxieties. Yet we and they are also watching all the deserved but near-exclusive media focus on the losses of the class ahead of them.

Take a moment and remember back to how important your junior year of high school was, with respect to setting the course for the years which followed.

And seniors in the Class of 2020 (and parents of seniors), please take a moment to look back one year ago in your calendar to see what you and they were doing. You’ll find exams such as the ACT’s and SAT’s. You’ll find major culminating academic and extracurricular projects. Spring sports. College tours and several information sessions. Excitement building about those possibilities; maybe even sitting in on a class. Theater performances. Volunteering. Sports recruiting and tournaments. Maybe jobs, interviews for summer jobs, conferences and more. None of these are happening, nor have happened in the Seattle area for weeks now.

The College Board cancelled SAT’s for March and May here in Seattle, have scheduled one for June but given the ongoing uncertainties, it may well be cancelled too [update: they were.] The College Board has not been very specific about future opportunities, nor in any way flexible about adding new sites or locations. It’s highly questionable at this writing that June exams in the Pacific Northwest will even take place. Awfully tough conditions under which to motivate oneself to study and excel.

For the college-bound, junior year is such a vital year for students to continue to demonstrate through their actions in the community who they are. By junior year, they’ve finally come of age enough for some of those opportunities to be further opened up to them. Some were interviewing for summer internships. Many were scheduled to take SATs, ACTs, final exams, final projects, AP classes, extracurricular activities, theater performances sports competition and more.

Spring of junior year is also when many tour college campuses, go to information sessions about the next stage of your life, “shop for” and identify college fit (and even preference of major.) It’s when many have enough seniority to lead and participate in clubs and activities, help others through volunteering, and so much more.

In just five or six short months, many of these students will be applying to college. Not being able to leave the house puts a real damper on demonstrating who they are in this very important year.

Impact Highly Variable Depending Upon Region, Community and School

Regional Differences Are Pronounced

If you’re a high school junior from a region that went to “remote only” or even entire school shutdown and “stay at home order” in early March, as we did here in Seattle, you may well end up with incomplete marks on your transcript, or you may have to do summer school. And certainly, you have had many opportunities curtailed.

And yet, come the autumn, you may also be competing with many students from around the world who had no such restrictions, or very light restriction.

To visualize this, The New York Times is out today with an article showing the varying impacts and “stay at home” orders, by state. This is as of the third week of March, 2020:

Some Schools are Shut, Others are Remote-Only, Others are Open

In addition to all the stresses of junior year and the next steps in life, another anxiety-producing aspect of this is the highly uneven nature of restrictions and opportunities around the world, and even within school districts. My son’s school has gone remote-only and done so very capably. He is incredibly fortunate. He will finish this year with a completed junior year academic record. But the Seattle Public School system has decided to shut down entirely, a decision that I really disagree with.

Impacts of course vary widely by socioeconomic group. So many families are up-ended, with layoffs and closures. Many children rely upon school meals, and now need to find other options. Developmentally delayed students need the attention of an experienced professional, and homeschooling for many is inadequate. The list goes on — I’m not even capturing part of it.

The City of Seattle decided to shut the whole school system down, relying upon parents who are able to homeschool their children, while most private schools in the area have been able to stand-up remote schooling in very short order. I realize that the Seattle Public School System’s decision is due to equity issues about uneven access to technology, and I appreciate that. But why are we skipping actual efforts to bridge these gaps with a loaner program, together with, say, a gym in each school set up with social distancing and remote-capable computers and headphones? This is a city with tons of tablets and wifi-capable notebooks in people’s homes, and no doubt thousands of Android and Windows and iOS remote-capable tablets in warehouses. I’d happily loan one and fund the rental of hundreds more. Numerous inequalities exist in our society. I don’t think the right way to address them is to optimize to the least-capable and assume those issues cannot be addressed.

This isn’t a grief competition. There is no finite amount of grief which must be fought over. But I hope the journalists who want to tell the story of the plight of the Graduating High School Class of 2020 also spare a moment to tell the stories of the class that’s just behind it.

A Turn Toward Optimism

I am noting for my future self that yesterday, Sunday March 22, 2020, was the day that my mood shifted fairly markedly from gloomy about the mid-term 3-9 month window to optimistic.

SHORT TERM (0-2 months) things will get tougher, and media gloom will accelerate as the wave now hits NYC. From a life and death, risk and economic standpoint, there is much pain ahead of us to endure. But mid-term (3-9 months) to long-term (9+ months and more), things, I think, start to look bright again.

Relative optimism about these latter two timeframes is new for me, because I did not have that feeling even a few days ago.


I am not a physician. I’m not a scientist. Nor do I have any medical training. I’m simply Very Online, and I read a lot. Like a lot of us, I enjoy building, I plan, and I invest. I generally find I need to have a mental model of what the next 0-24 month time horizon looks like in order to build and plan and invest successfully, and I work pretty hard at trying to have a good guess about that near to mid-term horizon. I love future-forecasting. It’s been a major part of my modus-operandi ever since I’ve been about ten years old — what does the future hold? What do I predict? And then, what actually did occur? Was I right or not? And… update mental model. I’m constantly updating mine.

I’ve been wrong about some very big things, like the election of 2016. That taught me a number of things, particularly that my own filter bubble of a deep-blue Facebook feed living in one of the deepest-blue cities in the nation, was really quite narrow. I’ve also been right about some pretty big things, like Microsoft being uniquely positioned in 1989 with the likely winning platform to benefit tremendously, many events throughout the telecom and Internet wave. And most recently, I felt the odds for a major “black swan” event in 2020 were quite high, and expressed those on Facebook more than a month ago.

With respect to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic specifically, I felt far more worried than my friend group and family about what is now called COVID-19 starting in about mid-January, a little too afraid to blast those serious fears online for fear of being labeled a tinfoil hat-wearer. I saw the alarming data from the initial papers and scientists on Twitter. I reasoned that a virus doesn’t really care much about a nationality or a border, that we have pretty significant trade with China, that air transportation multiplies the interconnectedness of nations. It was pretty clear the Chinese government and state media weren’t telling the full story. I was alarmed when I read in some early research papers that virus-carriers are asymptomatic for several days, 2-4% observed overall mortality rate (high among elderly, very low among youth), R0 of about 3 initially, etc. It was all becoming clear that this had serious chance — actually a likelihood — of becoming a new pandemic. And I saw the relatively dismissive public attitude by national political figures toward it, which was worrying.

Maybe you were one of those people too that started to develop a sense of real alarm in mid-January. I didn’t really encounter many here in Seattle very concerned about this in January, in the week or two after the Seahawks wrapped up their season with a disappointing 23-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

I shared that concern and those fears privately at home multiple times in January and early February, and particularly with good friends like Brian A., an investment professional in my neighborhood, who also was developing the very same concerns. Greg W. saw it very early and was also an exception. (He accurately predicted the 2016 Election as well.) Brian A. was quite concerned starting in mid-January, and he and I communicated often about this from mid January on.

I occasionally noted my concerns on Facebook — e.g., when the Diamond Princess incident first happened, and when the sheer scope of the Wuhan outbreak and its dystopian landscape became clear, but largely stayed away from being a doomsayer, because much of the conversation had already been cast in the context of presidential politics.

I did share one joke/non-joke about it:

In truth, I had already taken action that day, ordering a very small supply of wipes and sanitation equipment, sensible sanitary first aid supplies and more. I started organizing our pantry, and bought a few long shelf-life foods, but no more than a couple weeks’ worth. A week or two later, I posted a gentle/friendly note to friends to think about homestay supplies (and not to hoard) a week before “work from home” and private school closures started getting rolled out, and about three weeks before Seattle Public School closure announcements rolled out. I had been following Trevor Bedford on Twitter (of the Seattle Flu Study), who had been sharing very useful and alarming information.

I backed out substantially of a few market positions in late January and early February. I’ve never been a market timer, but a wave seemed to be highly probable and worth (relatively) protecting against. My wife can attest to the fact that in January and early February, my actions seemed a little crazy, and my mood quite dour. We finally aligned a bit in our perceptions when the schools started closing here.


Thankfully, my wife’s not on Twitter, which is both a hell-site and a worry-multiplier. She just doesn’t want to use it, and bring that into her day, and I applaud her for that. It’s probably the right decision for all of us, and certainly the right decision for her. But Twitter is also a great source of early information IF you can view it with the skepticism it deserves, and always double and triple check the information, its source, and hold off on “investing” in it. It shows both the illusions of water on the horizon but also points the way toward oases; it’s often very hard to determine which is which.

Filter Bubbles and Timezones

One thing the COVID crisis has highlighted is that filter bubbles exist not just within information channels (e.g., social networks on Facebook) but between the very channels themselves. That is, these channels attract or repel certain types of people, and they therefore have their own filter bubbles of information.

There seem to be at least five major information timezones. From earliest to latest, I’d label them: Twitter, CNN/FOX/MSNBC/NYT/WashPo etc., Facebook, The View/Nextdoor, and BRAVO. The second such channel, unfortunately, has been really corrupted by all kinds of activist bias. It is increasingly hard to rely upon the information provided there, because from about 2002 onward, every news story is somehow framed as a commentary (either negative or positive) on the administration that helms the White House. There is very little journalism that’s not activist journalism these days.

I take the deliberate risk of being on the earliest timezone, which is an incredibly bad worry-multiplier. And it’s so easy to get pulled into the childish, nasty, meme-driven vindictive back and forth. It’s often unhealthy.

But it can also be quite informative, and connect you with thought leaders, published research papers, and top-line thoughts from people in all walks of life, in all parts of the globe.

All this is to say that it’s best to treat evolving news stories as a Microsoft product from the 1990’s: wait until version 3 before investing. And in late January and early February, many warning signs were telling me to be gloomy, and I’ve stayed very dark and gloomy for a couple months now.

My “Mid-term 2-9 Month” Optimism Is Starting To Return

But that mood is starting to change. For the first time in months, after pouring through some promising initial signs on antivirals, yesterday felt different.

This is not at all to say that the short-term looks rosy. It doesn’t; it looks awful. Short term, in the 0-2 month timeframe, we have a lot more bad news to come.

There will be more deaths — thousands of them — and more overloaded hospitals desperately needing help. These next two weeks will be very rough in many more states. The panic level will rise as the wave is hitting the major media and financial center of NYC right now. And nations like Italy, and those nations and states which have not imposed social distancing and stay-home orders will continue to really struggle.

But I’m turning toward optimism that we’ll have antiviral courses which will work, and sustain us, and allow us to get back to some level of normalcy in the 2-18 month period, until the vaccines arrive.

As a layman, the very idea of having relatively effective antivirals themselves wasn’t even a “likely” to me until a few had shown effective action. Very likely many scientists knew these were possible and even likely. But to me, they weren’t. But there are now some early, very promising signs for a couple of them. One of them is a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azythromycin. But there are other pairs and individual protocols being tested.

They’re almost certainly not perfect, but they’re a pretty good starting point, it looks like. And given the grave consequences to the global economy to keeping everyone at home, the pressure will be substantial to accelerate their rollout after (hopefully) validation that they seem to work. We won’t know whether they do work until larger scale tests are done, which reportedly begin as soon as tomorrow. And then, since COVID has a relatively short and severe course (0-21 days, typically), we might know much more conclusively in, say, 15-40 days what the results are looking like.

So how might this play out in an optimistic, even plausibly likely (knock on wood) scenario?

Short-term, it should be mentioned that we are just entering into a period of maximum panic from a psychological standpoint in the media and financial center of America: NYC. Thus far, it looks like their shelter-in-place measures are inadequate. So things will, from a psychological standpoint, be quite bad for at least a couple weeks as hospitals become overloaded, and the wave of concern that first hit us in the Pacific Northwest a couple weeks ago starts to crest in NYC. NYC has a megaphone both culturally and financially.

One Possible Timeline

I really hesitate to write down my predictions and share them here, because they will almost certainly have errors, very likely, quite significant ones.

As my good friend Adam Doppelt says, “I’ve never regretted writing anything down.” Please don’t take this as investment advice, and CERTAINLY do not take this as health advice — heed your local warnings and directives, ideally sheltering in place per your local guidelines.

I need a current “default” set of assumptions to work from. So, what scenario do I currently think is most plausible? Keep in mind that I’m mostly writing to my future self, and hoping that by writing down what I’m feeling now about the future, I can look back, see what I under and over-estimated, and perhaps make course corrections next time. That’s a major part of how I operate.

My current mental model of how it might play out looks like this:

Mar 23-Apr 20* gloom hits NYC in serious form and media/financial gloom escalates
* larger scale trials of antivirals
* results encouraging, dosages tweaked. side effects noted; there’s risk but risk is deemed acceptable
* toward latter half, starts filtering through media and wider culture that an antiviral course might be a stopgap
Apr 20-May 20* death curve due to COVID starts to bend/flatten in US
* markets will begin to do some sporadic relief rallies, but not return to the pre-COVID levels for a couple years, perhaps
* media narrative begins to shift toward other stories, particularly the presidential election
* rapid tests become widely available
dosages tweaked, supply provisioned
* various governors start easing socializing restrictions
Memorial Day (roughly)* COVID-19 crisis starts to “feel” behind us, which will NOT actually be reality, it’ll remain a serious concern, just with available supply to test and treat
Summer 2020* DNC/RNC conventions and 2020 election race news begins to re-take lead headlines

I’d like to stay out of national political commentary except to say that I’m not incredibly impressed with either party’s offerings at the national level right now. (I’m Independent, and have never registered with either party.) I am impressed with Gov. Jay Inslee’s approach and that of many state governors. Market starts to rebound in August-October, but most investors will hold off until we get a sense of whether R’s or D’s have the likely nod.
Fall-Winter ’20We will have serious re-outbreaks of COVID-19 but a combination of antivirals and herd immunity will keep it from being as massive as the Spanish Flu pandemic’s second wave
4Q 2021Vaccine becomes available in wider supply.
We realize coronavirus has many mutations and patterns and try to build a more generalized platform to deliver these vaccines.

Antivirals Might Just Work as a Stopgap

Last week and this weekend, I have been reading several very encouraging results from some antiviral pharmaceutical trials, a potential stopgap measure before vaccines arrive. These early results seem to be reaffirmed now in at least four completely separate instances and countries: France, China, USA, and Australia.

A very good summary of what we know so far is here in The Scientist Magazine. There are small-scale trials that show very promising results. There are important exceptions and caveats, such as that ably discussed by Gaetan Burgio:

And there is PLENTY more to learn regarding the hydroxychloroquine and azythromycin trials (and variants), and wide trials to do. New York state goes to its first major trials this week.

I am cautiously optimistic, but optimistic. Nothing that I’ve been able to discover so far refutes this sense of optimism demonstrated in some early tests, though yes, there are -substantial- dangers and side-effects in any over-dosage, including death itself at a 10x+ dosage of one of the drugs.

Unrelatedly, today, Washington State has announced “only” one new COVID-related death. The full effects of social distancing have not yet been baked into the curve-bending.

Mini Black Swans Still Possible… Even Likely

COVID and the cold-reboot of the global economy aren’t likely to be the only major news stories of 2020-2021. We have two septuagenarians who are not necessarily in peak physical condition who will be facing off for national office. We have a growing tension between populist-nationalists and populist-socialists, with the lean-toward-trade-globalists like me largely on the sidelines.

We have two Supreme Court justices who are over 80 years old (Stephen Breyer, b. 1938, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, b. 1933.)

Earthquakes, hurricanes and even volcanic eruptions don’t care about COVID, and aren’t going to put their activities on hold.

We have a highly volatile election cycle, with ardent supporters and haters of the current president battling it out.

Please Do NOT Change Your Behavior… #StayHome #WashHands

But maybe join me in turning toward optimism, if you’re OK with the very possible chance that your optimism may be premature.

NONE of this will change our own behavior in our own household, and PLEASE of course do not let it change yours. We’re doing the right thing here in Washington State, and need to do even more of it. There is still a long way to go, likely several weeks, but I think we’ll get through this. It is all uncertain. Things are fluid and moving rapidly. But my mood is shifting to optimistic today.

#WashYourHands #StayAtHome

How to help?

We’ve identified several of the ways that individuals can take productive action over at; please drop by to learn how you can take action now.


Late last week, a few of us started discussing ways we could help out local restaurants that are devastated by the COVID crisis. My friend Michelle came up with the brilliant idea to raise money to buy gratitude meals for first responders, to help express just some of our thanks for the work they’re doing and will do.

I think a lot of people want to help in various ways, and have lots of different constraints (financial, time, movement, etc.) I thought it’d be helpful to have a place where people who do have a desire to reach out have a good place to share ideas and be inspired. We’re calling the all-volunteer organization #bigthanks. It’s about putting gratitude into action. It’s available at

Yesterday we delivered hot meals to 200+ health care workers and 100+ first responders.

Today we feed another 50+ in the El Centro de la Raza community on Beacon Hill.

Through the generous support of a handful of donors, we’ve raised over $4,000 so far to help support a second-generation downtown restaurant, their kitchen staff and other food service workers in town: some much needed revenue.

Head Chef Ronnie and Shannon

We’re learning a lot about how to do this, particularly how to do this in a responsible, socially-distanced and safe way.

#bigthanks is a hashtag that’s about turning our gratitude into productive action. We’d love to hear your ideas.

Please join us at